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Get to Know a Scientist Emeritus—Carolyn Olson

This is the thirteenth in a series of Get to Know posts highlighting and celebrating the contributions of exemplary Scientists Emeriti.  Their work, experience, and contributions are essential to the mission of the USGS. 

Scientists Emeriti, such as Carolyn, are a valuable source of scientific knowledge and wisdom. Carolyn helps maintain the long-term reputation of the USGS with the wider scientific community by representing the USGS in scientific organizations, as well as in high-level external science endeavors such as the working group to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Additionally, she has provided scientific expertise to various Water Mission Area programs as she continues to participate in the planning for new projects slated to start in FY22. 

Robert R. HolmesPhD, P.E., D. WRE,F. EWRI, F. ASCE 
Chief, Hydrodynamics Branch 
Acting Chief, Water Cycle Branch 


What attracted or brought you to work for USGS in the first place? 

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson, second from left, explaining a concept to a student.  Carolyn co-taught summer short courses in the field for several years.  This field course was held near Las Cruces in New Mexico.

I grew up in upstate New York on our family’s dairy farm and had wanted to be a geologist ever since I was a little girl. I was a high school valedictorian and was awarded a fellowship to attend Syracuse University. Together with a New York State Regents Scholarship, I was able to support my undergraduate degree program, where I majored in geology. My plan was to learn as much of the geology in the eastern region of the United States during my undergraduate degree program, in the central region of the United States during my master’s degree program, and in the western region of the United States during my PhD. I attended Indiana University in Bloomington for both my master’s degree and my PhD, with a brief stint at Purdue University to earn minors in civil engineering and agronomic soils. During my pre-professional career, I learned about the USGS and put it on my list as the place for a geologist to work. By the time I had finished graduate school, I had summer experiences mapping site geology in Greece, working for Shell Oil Company in New Orleans, and plenty of field and laboratory work experience. I had my sights set on the USGS and kept looking for job opportunities there. At one of the professional science meetings I attended before finishing my PhD, I interviewed with a research scientist from the Menlo Park Western Region Office. I applied for several types of positions and received offers from a couple of universities, Shell Oil, and USGS. I accepted the USGS offer and was assigned to Menlo Park, so in many ways, my early strategy for studying US geology had continued. I would finally work in the western US.  

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson pointing to a discontinuity at a field site.

How long did you work at USGS before you retired and how long have you been an Emerita? 

I started in Menlo Park in 1979, in what was then the Water Resources Division (WRD), working on unsaturated hydraulic conductivity. The Nevada Test Site was my field area. After a few years, I transferred to Reston in WRD to work on the acid rain program as it geared up. I think it was about 15 years or so. I was lured away from USGS by USDA where I was offered a supervisory role to develop a new field research staff, something I didn’t see possible as an option at that time in USGS. It was a serious risk that at times I wasn’t sure was the best decision. However, while at USDA, I had many new opportunities including becoming head of the research soil scientists and then head of the laboratory for the agency. After that, I moved on to a climate science policy position in the Office of the Chief Economist.   

What was your last title/position at USGS before you retired and became an Emerita? 

This question and its answer are a bit skewed because I retired from USDA. 
I was a senior scientist in the Climate Change Program in the Office of the Chief Economist at USDA in Washington, DC. I coordinated climate change adaptation policy for the Department. I retired from the USDA in December 2017, and having had enough years to qualify, immediately applied and became emerita at USGS. I have worked in the Reston office since. In many ways, it is as though I’d never left. My office is two doors away from my former office and many familiar colleagues are nearby, that is, were nearby in pre-pandemic times. Now we meet in virtual staff meetings. 

What Science Center do you answer to as an Emerita? 

I am in the Water Mission Area, Earth System Processes Division, Water Cycle Branch of the USGS in Reston, Virginia.  

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson, standing, discussing a soil sample with a colleague.  This was taken in a forest north of the Arctic Circle in what is now Russia.

Describe a highlight of your career. 

One highlight occurred shortly after I began my career with USGS. On May 18th, 1980, Mt. St. Helens erupted, only 5 months after I joined the USGS. It seemed nearly every available geoscientist with field experience from Menlo Park was sent almost immediately to work there. I’d had significant experience in mapping loess deposits (wind-blown silts) and understood watershed and landscape dynamics so I jumped at the opportunity. I spent the next two summers working on ash erosion in the Schultz Creek watershed that emptied into the Toutle River, did rainulator experiments on site with George Leavesley from the USGS Denver WRD, and, by myself, sampled and mapped ash distribution. After the first very damaging lahar during the initial eruption, there was a very serious concern that the ash that had dammed smaller streams emptying into the Toutle might burst. If pressures on these ash-earthen dams built too rapidly, these could fail catastrophically, possibly beginning other damaging lahar-like debris flow in the Toutle River valley. It was a totally unexpected and great introduction to working with experienced USGS geomorphologists, hydrologists, and volcanologists from all over the US. We were only allowed to work in the area during summers for safety reasons, the winters were a big concern because of avalanches and flooding. 

I think another highlight might be that because I started working on the acid rain program, I met geoscientists from Norway, the “birthplace of research on acid rain,” who came to Reston for a short time. I learned about their research programs and issues and I applied for a Fulbright Research Grant to work on an acid rain project in Norway. I suspect that working for the USGS, with its research reputation on acid rain, was fundamental to my successful application. I lived in Norway and worked on clay minerals in acid environments for about six months at a Norwegian college, now called the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The project, headed by two professors at that university, had a field area high in the forests a short distance north of Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. I traveled throughout Norway as much as possible during my stay, and was fortunate that an international polar sciences meeting was scheduled at the University of Oslo that year with a field trip to Svalbard, (previously known as Spitzbergen), a Norwegian archipelago which at that time was still closed to foreigners without special permits. I attended the multi-day field trip living on an ancient listing ship for the length of the field trip. Svalbard is one of the northernmost inhabited land masses at about 78 degrees north latitude.   

What led you to decide to become an Emerita? 

Becoming an Emerita was the most logical way to continue my work and begin to learn more about new potential collaborations with USGS staff.   

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson, in the soil pit, discussing a section with colleagues.

What exciting research or service activities are you currently working on, and what are you planning for the near future? 

I can work with a variety of USGS and other scientists interested in a coordinated national soil moisture monitoring network. My perspective is related to policy and observing how to manage collaborations with large numbers of scientists from different public and private entities. 

As far as service activities, I am finishing up my tenure as past president that began with my election to President of AGI (American Geosciences Institute, a federation of more than 40 professional societies that represent over 250,000 geoscientists) shortly after becoming Emerita.   

What do you enjoy and appreciate the most about being an Emerita? 

I think it is the freedom to pursue a variety of topics both within and outside of the division with which I’m affiliated at the USGS. For example, I’ve been on a planning committee for the Great Plains Forum, a committee composed of several water science and climate centers who have been participating in learning what expertise is available in the different centers and how they might leverage that expertise for larger scale projects. I am looking forward to where I might contribute. 

What type of mentoring or outreach activities do you currently undertake as an Emerita? 

I first started serious mentoring activities at the various professional societies to which I belong, (GSA, SSSA, and AWG) focusing only on science and opportunities for graduate students looking for positions. However, more recently I have become involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and bias issues in the geosciences. I first became interested when I was asked to participate in a women’s geoscience session at GSA several years ago. That presentation resulted in a chapter I wrote in a 2018 GSA memoir series entitled, “Reflections on an interdisciplinary geoscience career.” At the time I wrote this, I did not realize that some of the issues I described had actual clinical names associated with them. Shortly thereafter, I joined a Soil Science Society Committee on Representation and Recognition. Along with several of the women scientists from this committee, I presented posters on society demographics and then wrote an article on women soil scientists, titled Women in Soil Science: Growing Participation, Emerging Gaps and the Opportunities for Advancement in the US. I am currently working with AGI and a committee to address not just the issues of DEI and bias but how to integrate solutions into the lives of fellow scientists. By the way, an excellent movie, called Picture a Scientist was recently presented on PBS here in the DC metropolitan area. This is a non-fiction account of several women and their workplace challenges over several decades and is available on several video platforms.  

What are/were the most important decisions you made as a research scientist for your organization? 

Finding opportunities to work on scientific issues completely different from my regular position every few years. These “diversions” energized me. These included Mt. St. Helens, the Fulbright in Norway, a master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard, and becoming part of several high profile and even international efforts (UNFCC- COP; NCA4, IPCC). 

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson asking a question on a field trip.

If you could give your 18-year-old self, one piece of advice, what would it be?  

Mastering scientific problems will be the least of your challenges. Human interactions and encounters will drape confounding filters over everything you do.  

Where did you travel last, domestically or internationally?    

This would have been much easier to describe before the pandemic, so I’ll concentrate on that.  In 2019, I visited Greece for the first time since I had worked there a summer more than 40 years ago as a graduate student. During my master’s degree program, my major advisor received an offer to map the geology of an anthropological site in Greece and sent me there one summer. Little did I know the site would become a very famous Neolithic Paleolithic site, and artifacts and maps now occupy an entire floor in a regional museum where one wall is covered by a huge photo of the site. I’ve never had any field projects in a museum before, let alone in a foreign country, so this was a wonderful surprise to see so many years later.  

In a separate trip in 2019, I lectured on the geology of Iceland and Ireland as a resident naturalist during a cruise to both locations.  It was one of several returns to Iceland where I’d first visited the Vestmannaeyjar Islands during a volcanic eruption in my undergraduate years.  Ireland’s volcanics, though much older than Iceland, are an extension of some of the volcanic units I’d seen in past visits to Scotland.  

Domestically, I think my last trips were to professional meetings like GSA or AGU. While I did attend those and more this year, they were all virtual. I co-chaired a session for GSA related to the last Laurentide glaciation. That meeting would have been in Montreal, Canada if we’d met in person, a city that is always worth visiting.  

What was the last (or favorite) book you read?   

Anything by Louise Penny. The last was one of her most recent, A Better Man From 2019. 

What is one characteristic that you believe every good research scientist should possess? 

Questioning mind or tenacity.  

What resources or advice would you give someone going into a research position for the first time? 

It will be different from graduate school and you may feel less protected. Try to keep all your mentors because it will be some time before you can acquire new ones. Adequate research funding is by far the greatest challenge for most geoscience graduates, particularly those heading for academia. Learn the proposal process early. 

Carolyn Olson
Carolyn Olson, in the middle, along with two other scientists examining a road cut on a Quaternary field trip in Canada. 

What advice would you give someone who is contemplating retirement and the life that follows? 

I’m the worst one to ask. I thought I’d be working for at least another five years and planned my work around that. I’d never really thought much about retirement and still need to find something new to do. Outside interests are important and I think one probably needs to cultivate a new circle of friends not associated with your former life. That’s difficult for me. I feel as though I think about things differently and sometimes have challenges relating to others outside of science.   

How are you spending your time during the pandemic? 

Mostly working on catching up on research data that I’ve acquired over the years and trying to find a way to organize what I have. I have the family farm in another state and have been waiting patiently to be able to go back.  

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